There are some interesting points in the NY Times article I posted earlier. Having lived in Japan for over 2 and half years now and working in Japanese public schools, I can agree with most of the points.
Here in Nakatsu, the school system is still very egalitarian. Sometimes too egalitarian, at least on the surface. For example, there are strict rules about uniforms and hairstyles, (lack) of make-up, etc, but students still express their individuality (and their consumerism) with their name-brand accessories, backpacks, stationery, etc. From elementary school on through junior high (the period of compulsory education in Japan), tracking students based upon ability is strictly forbidden. That means, in my English classes at school, I have kids who don’t even know the alphabet after 3 years of English to kids who can read and write rather well, all in the same class. The teachers have to follow a strict curriculum and they plug through things, aiming at the average or below average student. This means that the students who fall behind are completely lost, and the high acheiving students are totally bored. Nobody in junior high fails anyway. Everybody is socially promoted and will graduate with their class. There are no tests to graduate junior high; the challenge is the entrance exams to get into more competitive high schools or universities.
With the “juku” system of cram schools, the supposedly egalitarian nature of the state school system is pretty much bogus anyway. The jukus are private cram schools that usually operate after school and on weekends. Since jukus are private, it costs money to send one’s children there, thus favoring those with more financial means. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with students getting tutoring to help them succeed, but the widespread juku phenomenon begs the questions: if the school system is so good, why do even the smart kids need to go to juku?
From conversations with some of my better English students, I gather that this is where much of the real learning happens anyway. So if students learn the English they need in juku to pass the exams, they can totally phase out of English class or any other classes. Remember that class attendance and junior high grades don’t matter – you will still graduate no matter what. So students never have to participate in class, even the smart ones if they don’t want to, as long as they can pass the written entrance exams to the high school of their choice.
I think that the real purpose of the compulsory school system is socialization and control. In some respects, the school system is part of the social welfare system. All students get immunizations and health exams through the school system. There is also a system of low-cost subsidized school meals. Everybody eats the same thing, including the teachers and the office staff. School is where the kids learn to “be Japanese”: how to use the proper level of respectful verb forms depending on the social context of discourse, and how many degrees of incline to bow in a given situation, how to be a group.
The public school system is very paternalistic. Schools will set rules regarding the student’s conduct outside of school in addition to the already strict rules at school. At one school I teach at, the student’s aren’t supposed to stop by the convenience store on their way to or from school to buy snacks. They aren’t supposed to be at the video game arcade after a certain time. These are rules set by the school (an extension of the state), not the kids’ parents. If a kid gets into a fight outside of school, or gets caught shoplifting, the police will call the kid’s homeroom teacher who will also likely take blame for the kid’s parents for not “teaching our child good ethics.” School days are long, and school holidays are very short compared to the US. School teachers are more than teachers, they also work as social workers and surrogate parents. Despite all the time Japanese kids spend at school, they probably don’t spend more time learning in a classroom environment than the average American student. The Japanese kids are at school, doing club activities, preparing for numerous school events like sports days, culture festivals, song contests, etc. that take up a good chunk of the school year. These activities mold kids into a collective and build up an esprit de corps. The kids can spend hours and hours preparing for sports day and culture festival during the school day because we already know that juku is where the real learning happens anyway.